Migrant standoffs expose European division

And even if it is true that Italy has once again failed to abide by its international obligations, and to observe the treaties to which it is signatory… this does not add up to an excuse for Malta to do the same, and to ignore the plight of 49 people – including women and small children – stranded at sea in unspeakable conditions

The ongoing standoff resulting in two NGO ships – the Sea-Watch 3 and the Professor Albert Penck, stranded off Malta’s coast for 16 days, with 49 migrants on board, after no country has given its permission for the vessels to dock at its shores – is nothing if not entirely predictable.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat noted last June that: “the MV Aquarius and MV Lifeline standoffs have seen Italy and Malta pitted against each other, when in fact we should be allies working for the same cause. This further highlights the failure of Europe to act.”

That standoff was itself an umpteenth repetition of a similar drama, every time a large boatload of migrants is rescued by NGOs in international waters. And because the underlying issue – i.e., a common, workable European policy on migration and resettlement – remains as unresolved today, as it was last year and the year before that… it is now more than evident that this is not a problem that will ever go away of its own accord.

Nonetheless, ‘Europe’s failure’ – as Muscat put it – should not translate into our collective failure, as human beings, to observe the most time-honoured principles of social conviviality: including not just the commitment to save endangered lives upon the sea – in all circumstances (regardless of who one saves, and why they needed saving in the first place) – but also to treat other people with the dignity to which they have a fundamental human right.

And even if it is true that Italy has once again failed to abide by its international obligations, and to observe the treaties to which it is signatory… this does not add up to an excuse for Malta to do the same, and to ignore the plight of 49 people – including women and small children – stranded at sea in unspeakable conditions.

Having said this, one can also sympathise with the Prime Minister’s argument that “it is all too easy to play the part of a Christmas saint”. There is truth to the assertion that allowing those migrant ships to dock in Malta’s harbours would set an awkward precedent for the future. This is already the third analogous incident of its kind in the past year alone; and there were others in the preceding decade. Nearly always, they have ended in a reluctant, impromptu agreement between different EU members states to voluntarily distribute the rescued migrants… and even in this case, the Netherlands and Germany have already pledged to take in some of the migrants; but only when another European country agrees to open its port and allow the vessels to dock.

Effectively, this means that the bone of contention is not, as it usually is, a question of who will take responsibility once they disembark; it is only about which of two countries – Italy and Malta – will be the first to swallow their pride.

All the same, redistribution on an ad hoc basis is clearly not a long-term solution; and that, in any case, it is still always Malta being left to carry the can for other countries which stolidly refuse to observe international maritime law… even when the rescue would have taken place far closer to Italy or Tunisia than to Malta.

Accepting yet another two boatloads under the same circumstances – i.e., because we were forced to do so, by Italy’s intransigence – would certainly cement the perception, from Italy’s viewpoint, that Malta is an easy country to bully. No country can ever allow itself to be browbeaten that way. Politically, Malta is right to stand up to Italy’s bullying tactics, and also to complain – as does Italy, after all – about the EU’s complete abdication of responsibility for what is, after all, a pan-European issue.

But Malta can stick to that position, without also abandoning those people to their fate, or disregarding its own international commitments. This is not just a political emergency, but also a human tragedy in the making. The Sea-Watch 3 is currently carrying 32 migrants who were rescued from a dinghy in international waters on 22 December. An additional 17 migrants were saved by the Sea-Eye’s vessel Professor Albrecht Penck, amongst them three young children, three unaccompanied adolescents and four women from Nigeria, Libya and Ivory Coast.

The situation on board both vessels is now described as ‘dire’ and ‘alarming’ by the NGOs concerned. There are concerns about the passengers’ psychological well-being, which is described as “weak”. Some migrants had gone as far as refusing to eat, while others have attempted to jump off the ships in “despair”.

Both ships were allowed to enter Maltese territorial waters last Wednesday to shelter from bad weather; but there is no form of ‘shelter’ to be had from the psychological duress of being used as a pawn in an ongoing political dispute between different countries.

And ultimately, there is no reason why discussions on a common migration policy cannot continue to take place even after the migrants are allowed to disembark. As the NGO which rescued them put it, “We agree that Malta is not responsible for taking in the migrants; but redistribution should happen on land and not at sea.”

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